The “Columbus” movie, which premiered Sunday at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, is earning raves from a five-member city contingent and others who attended its sold-out opening in Utah.

Filmed last summer during a three-week period from July 31 to Aug. 20 at 16 buildings in downtown Columbus, the artsy “Columbus” film was the first for a Nashville, Tennessee, director who goes by the single name of Kogonada.

“The cinematography is beautiful,” said Erin Hawkins, director of marketing for the Columbus Area Visitors Center, among the local group that attended the opening.

Hawkins was among the first locals in June to get a glimpse of the director’s “look book” he compiled before the shoot. It consisted of a series of preview graphics of scenes he planned for the film. Many of the shots included Columbus buildings in the background, but several of the depictions looked like literal, dreamy art work.

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“The whole film has this ethereal quality,” Hawkins said. “To see the director’s overall vision come to life from those early drawings and pictures reminded me that, clearly, none of this happened by accident. He definitely accomplished what he set out to do.”

The movie focuses on a 19-year-old Columbus resident (played by Haley Lu Richardson) trying to decide whether to leave home and pursue her dreams as she cares for her mother, a recovering addict. She strikes up a friendship with a 29-year-old man (John Cho) visiting the city from Korea to be with his suddenly dying architect father — a man who came to town on a getaway to study the city’s noted buildings, as the script goes.

The two characters find respite in each other and in the Modernist architecture surrounding them, according to the movie’s promotional material.

“Thanks to Richardson and Cho’s abundant charisma, there is still a breezy joy to joining them,” writes Vanity Fair, which calls Kogonada the real star of “Columbus.”

The magazine review describes “Columbus” as “a clever and compelling exploration into how physical structures can come to represent emotional landmarks in our personal lives, and the drive we have to share them with others.”

As the producers promised while a 40-member crew was in Columbus for filming, the architecture becomes something like a character in the story, according to the locals who viewed the film at the historic, 266-seat Egyptian Theater in Park City, Utah.

And it becomes a rather striking character at that, they said.

Hawkins, a Columbus native who grew up loving the city’s architecture, acknowledged that Kogonada’s shots were different than most anything else she has seen linked to the local structures.

“We all agreed that seeing our architecture and beloved buildings through the lens of Kogonada was a completely different perspective for us,” she said. “He has a great eye for lining up angles.”

One example Hawkins cited is a straight, skyward shot directly underneath City Hall’s cantilevered arms at the front.

Mayor Jim Lienhoop, who with wife Pam Lienhoop made the trip funded by the visitors center, said he enjoyed every aspect of the movie.

He complimented the story, its message, and its entertainment value — not to mention the sets marked by some of the world’s finest designers.

“Some of us in Columbus sometimes can get a little too accustomed to having our architecture around us all the time,” the mayor said. “And because of that, perhaps we don’t always see it for the real treasure that it is.”

The mayor got a chance to mingle with the cast and others at a restaurant dinner party the visitors center sponsored.

Lienhoop said he had a great chat with Richardson’s dad, Forrest L. Richardson, a golf course designer who knew all about the renowned Otter Creek Golf Course in Columbus, designed by Robert Trent Jones and Reese Jones.

Karen Niverson, the visitors center’s director, called the movie “really exhilarating and a beautiful film.”

“When people in Columbus see this film, they will be so proud that this is our town,” Niverson said. “They will absolutely love it.”

But Niverson and others did more than sit back and be impressed.

They told people about Columbus’ willingness to work with filmmakers, repeating a theme she mentioned before the trip: That the city worked together to close streets and streamline and expedite whatever possible to make a tight shooting schedule successful.

One viewer told Niverson that Kogonada’s work “is like a Valentine to Columbus.”

The movie apparently offers emotion to go with its ample homage to refined design. Both the Lienhoops mentioned a touching scene between Cho and his comatose father, for instance.

“I cried at the end,” Pam Lienhoop said.

The mainstream premiere of “Columbus,” when other Columbus residents would first get to see it, still is unknown while the production awaits a distributor.

However, the primary cast told the city contingent that they would love to come back to Columbus for a local premiere.

Their three-week stay to shoot the low-budget movie made quite an impact — so much so that Richardson, who plays the female lead, and fellow cast member Michelle Forbes, who plays her mother, grew slightly emotional talking about the city when they spoke to the film’s audience after the festival premiere.

Hawkins said the pair spoke especially “of how hospitable and generous with their time all the Columbus people were.”

Forbes told Hawkins and others she would sure to make it back to Columbus for any local showing.

“Please reach out to me,” Forbes said, “and let me know when it’s happening. I will fly myself there.”

Richardson’s real-life boyfriend, actor Brett Dier of “Jane the Virgin,” told local tour guide Bonnie Boatwright that Richardson has spoken about Columbus off and on ever since returning from the shoot.

Richardson mentioned one beautiful element in particular about Columbus: Miles, the fuzzy, mascot Bichon Frise dog at the downtown Hotel Indigo where the cast and crew stayed.

About the Sundance Film Festival

The Sundance Film Festival is the largest independent film festival in the country.

The Sundance Institute, launched by actor and director Robert Redford in an effort to attract filmmakers to Utah, has been operating the festival since 1985.

This year’s festival, featuring 66 films shown in three Utah cities, opened Jan. 19 and wraps up on Sunday.

The “Columbus” movie, among 66 in the festival, was placed this year in a noncompetitive Sundance category, NEXT.

Information: Visit sundance.org.

Pull Quote

“We all agreed that seeing our architecture and beloved buildings through the lens of Kogonada was a completely different perspective for us.”

— Erin Hawkins, marketing director, Columbus Area Visitors Center

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.